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Artistic Expression or Safety Hazard?

news2Faith group leader relocates to Santa Cruz County for artistic freedom, gets art red tagged

Rev. Robert Seals, an artist, musician, and leader of Mother Nature’s Temple—an earth-based faith group that originated in Butte County, but is now headquartered in Soquel—has utilized artistic expression as a means of protest since the Vietnam War era. So, naturally, when he ran into legal problems with a neighbor upon moving onto a 50-acre property just off Old San Jose Road last year, he expressed his frustration by creating a sculpture.

That artistic expression came in the form of a 14-foot tall “Mr. Potato Head,” with a wide, grinning mouth full of sharp fangs and glaring eyes. He crafted the face from the churning tank of a cement mixer, which he purchased for about $600, cutting and welding features, painting it, and setting it vertically. From Seals’ mountain property, the face peered directly at the neighbor’s home.

It all began when the neighbor reported Seals to the county for the modifications he was making on his land. Seals’ potato head sculpture prompted another call by the neighbors to the Santa Cruz County Planning Department, this time reporting their discontent with the giant head peering hungrily at their house.

The Planning Department sent code enforcement officer Jacob Rodriguez to check it out, Seals says.

Rodriguez red tagged the sculpture, citing that its size and shape constituted it a “structure”—the definition of which the Planning Department leaves loose for just such occasions.

Seals conducted his own research and was under the impression that art is not subject to any permitting restrictions while on private property. But, says Chief Building Official for Santa Cruz County Tony Falcone, the county has the power to determine what is or is not a structure on a case-by-case basis.

Their definition for a structure is simply, “that which is constructed,” he says.

“It’s broad, and that’s part of my job—interpreting these kinds of definitions,” Falcone says. “There’s no way to define every possibility. It’s hard to say, ‘Well, art is this, and a structure that requires a permit is that.’ It’s not that black and white.”

In the case of the colorful Potato Head, the county determined the art piece was a structure because of the potential hazard it could create by tumbling down the mountain in the event of an earthquake, destroying everything in its path.

“If it starts representing a potential safety hazard, or any type of impact to people or property, then we look at it as a structure,” Falcone says.

“They got pretty creative,” he says of Seals’ art piece. “I thought it was cool looking. But it was up on end, and up on top of a hill, and even though they’re on a fairly large land parcel, they have surrounding neighbors, and if there was a seismic event and this thing toppled over, it would have so much inertia, it could easily take out some houses below.”

To keep the “art structure,” the red tag stipulated that Seals must apply for a permit and have the foundation engineered, which he says would all cost approximately $6,000. He was given 90 days’ time, which elapsed about a month ago, to comply or take it down.

Just before the 90-days were up, Seals, frustrated, cut the beast into pieces and torched it.

“Part of the reason I put it there was [because] I was venting my anger toward these people, and I did it through art—that’s true,” Seals says. “But it’s still art, and art has its motives. The point is, they found a way to censor art, and I think that’s wrong.”

He says the county has interpreted the law as a means to side with the neighbors.

“I can’t prove that, though,” he goes on. “The county code enforcement has a loophole because it’s their opinion of what’s safe. But it’s on my own land and it’s not a structure. They crossed the line.”

This is not the first time Seals has dealt with heat from neighbors and county officials.

Three years ago, before he moved to Santa Cruz, Seals lived in Chico, where he established a facility for his religious earth group, called the Goddess Temple, on an 80-acre property that he still owns.

Following a large gathering in 2009 on his land, called the Earth Dance Festival, Butte County officials cited Seals for building- and land-use-permit violations, but Seals, with an attorney who specializes in spiritual rights, is working to show that the county violated the Mother Nature’s Temple nonprofit’s rights to religious freedom. That case is ongoing.

In addition to being a Universal Life Church minister, Seals is also the creator of the popular stainless steel water bottle line, Klean Kanteen. He sold the company two years ago and uses the proceeds to fund his nonprofit.

Seals moved to Santa Cruz hoping to reestablish Mother Nature’s Temple here, but is now rethinking the whole thing. He recently put the property off Old San Jose Road up for sale.

“I wanted to move to a place that’s more accepting; more liberal,” Seals says. “They shut down my temple in the woods [in Chico]. And now they’ve shut down my art. I think they’re way out of bounds of their power on this one.”

Comments (12)Add Comment
SHAME on YOU SANTA CRUZ!
written by Artist Paula Quinn, January 29, 2014
I came across this post by chance, and I have something to say! I was present at the first viewing of this property before the purchase. The then owner made it a point to forewarn up front about this "nasty neighbor". The previous owner proceeded to say that they have had nothing but trouble from him! she said he was not friendly and he complained allot!... She said that he would most likely be problematic for us! But Robert being the positive person he is said: I'm sure he'll like us! We take him a piece offering and invite him over for dinner so he can see what were all about! By the time he moved in the neighbor had already made up his mind, passing judgement to the point of no return before he even moved in! So Robert never had a chance here! He's a negative grumpy old man who's uncaring unloving and unkind none of the things that Robert is! I can see why anyone would get upset! I mean wouldn't you? I know I would and I'm a very positive person! But that's not the reason why I'm writing, the reason I'm writing is because I am an artist and I am shocked at the action of the city of Santa Cruz because the land in question is a dense forest of trees so even if that piece took a tumble for any reason it wouldn't go far! It would have to make it's way through 40 + acres to reach the creek where it would then roll into the creek. period! Santa Cruz is saying it could then miraculously somehow gain momentum from the bottom of the creeks bed and roll itself up and out continuing over a barrier of logs to be able to cause harm if any! NO No No WAY! All artist loose here! and All artist should be mad as hell! We can't allow people to get away with these bogus complaints in retaliation when it comes to art in any form! The neighbor forgets where he lives! SANTA CRUZ is the only place where artists can be free to live and let live their art! Shame on the City of Santa Cruz! and SHAME on the miss guided neighbor for censoring art for the selfish act of retaliation whether he "likes it or not" in the city of all places SANTA CRUZ! Shaaame ON YOU!!
Editor’s Note
written by GOOD TIMES, May 06, 2013
Thank you everyone for the comments. Because we cannot prove anything about the identity of commenters at this time, we will not be removing the comments in question. Without further information, removing the comments at the request of other readers who dislike said comments would be against our policy of providing an open, public space for dialogue. If anything changes and it is proven that someone has violated any terms, we will then take action.
Another Response to Interested Party
written by Mark Kesterson, May 03, 2013
Upon reading the comments from Interested Party, I am left wondering about the character, and stability, of a person who writes something negative, and then uses someone else's name. Looks like the two posts from "Interested Party" are from an identity thief. I am also wondering about the integrity of a media outlet that is aware that these two post are bogus, but continue to leave them on their site when their terms of usage have obviously been violated. (See Terms of Usage paragraph "C").
Reading about what happened in Chico
written by Ed Natol, May 03, 2013
He sounds like he feels he can do anything and that the rules only apply to other people. I'm interested on what prompted the first call to the county. I'd like to see if he bothered with permits.
Tenant on said Property
written by Cassandra Keller, May 02, 2013
I have had the pleasure of leasing and managing the larger house on this property from the day that Robert purchased it. Harassment and exploitation by county officials as well as neighbors are MILD words to describe what I have witnessed take place here. The sculpture was pretty outrageous but in no way demonic.It in no way would have tumbled into anything but some bushes. All other houses were uphill from the sculpture, it would be literally impossible. I'm sorry, but not surprised to see the media once again grind out false information just as the neighbors and officials have done.
Observer
written by Kumar, May 02, 2013
So obviously there was the miserable tattletale type neighbor who immediately goes to the authorities about what he thinks are illegal modifications going on next door. Artistic payback is actually perfect and in this case seems well deserved. The bottom line is such a neighbor would likely never be friendly/normal so why not have a little vengeful fun with him. The county should have allowed Mr. Seals to freely express himself just as the neighbor did. If neighbors are cool and communicative in the first place, then free expression will be enjoyed by both parties.
Registered Nurse
written by Susan ONeill, May 02, 2013
This art of Mr. Seals was placed in a safe flat spot on his property and would never have rolled into any house because all of the houses were up hill from the sculpture. As far as Chico dealings go, the outcome of that has been resolved in Mr. Seals favor.
Registered Nurse
written by Susan ONeill, May 02, 2013
This art "Mr. Potato Head" was not demoniac looking. It was comical in my opinion. Robert Seals is one of the most generous, loving, open minded people I know. He tried to make friends with all the neighbors and was attacked immediately the first week he moved into the neighborhood. This attack cost Mr. Seals thousands of dollars and precious time. He was simply expressing his frustrations toward these attacks in his art.
Response to Interested party
written by Dan Bogan, May 02, 2013
The previous posts using my name are false and construed in a manner to create distrust between Robert and I (friends for 25+years ) and to
misinform you , the reader .

Interested Party
written by Dan Bogan, April 30, 2013
Per his own words, Robert set up Mr Potato Head to vent his anger toward these people (and hate). Also, in his own words, he moved to a place that would be more accepting; more liberal. His attitude shows that he is not that accepting himself. There is nothing here that suggests he worked with the neighbor (who I am assuming was there before Robert moved in). He seems to have a track record of getting into trouble with neighbors and the law. Would have hoped he would have learned - http://www.newsreview.com/chic...id=1434035
architect
written by Jim vocelka, April 28, 2013
The county is way out of line. The neighbors always have recourse in the courts...code enforcement people shouldn't be allowed to be judges, juries and enforcers. That is way, way too much power for a single government entity. I believe our forefathers would agree.
Interested Party
written by Dan Bogan, April 26, 2013
The art was not the only thing that was red-tagged. The planning department also cited many other things. They are way out of bounds.

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